Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Review: The Power

Almost overnight, everything changes. Girls suddenly have the ability to send electricity through their hands--they can use this to attract attention, to protect themselves, and even to hurt others. We follow four people as the power dynamic between men and women begins to shift. Margot is an American mayor wondering how this power will affect her political future and the decisions of her teenage daughter. Roxy is the tough daughter of a British gangster, while Allie is a terrified girl who runs away from her abusive foster family to the safety and possibility of a convent. Tunde is a young man in Nigeria whose knack for capturing the right moments catapults him to journalistic fame. The Power is a fascinating look at what it means to have and be in power.

This book is one of the most buzzed-about books in 2017. I heard about it first from my sister who was studying abroad and had the opportunity to read it before it came out in the US. The Power won the Baileys Prize for fiction and is appearing on many "best books of the year" lists. And it certainly is a fascinating idea: what would our world look like if women had a kind of power that men could never possess? How does a female-dominated society operate?

Unfortunately for me, this was one of those books that had a great idea but the execution fell flat. Aldermann gives us four very different perspectives, so we can see what is happening all over the world. This necessitates that we don't get close enough to all of the characters to really want to follow them. Personally, I was really intrigued by just two of them and found myself eager to skim through the other sections to get back to them.

Perhaps one of the boldest things the author does is to show us a world that really isn't that different from our current one. Power corrupts everyone, male or female, and Aldermann writes women who do not hesitate to threaten, injure, rape, or kill to keep their power. While I was intrigued, I found myself wishing for more nuance. Surely some things would be different if women were in power. While I would have loved to read that book, I am fascinated by Aldermann's ideas and look forward to seeing what she writes next.

The Power
By Naomi Alderman
Little, Brown, and Company October 2017
288 pages
Read via Netgalley

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Plight of the Too-Nice Book Reviewer

It happens more than I would like to admit.
I write a review and find myself pausing.
Am I being too mean?

I understand that the author of even the worst book spent years of their life writing and re-writing, creating and refining characters, planning and dreaming and working. There is a distinction between literary criticism and cruelty. I want to be the kind of reviewer who stays way over on one side of that line. A bad writer can improve. A good writer can and will occasionally write a dud. And can we just take a minute to mention the subjectivity of enjoying a book?

On the other hand, my job as someone who reviews books is to distinguish between good writing and bad writing, and to guide anyone who reads my reviews towards the books they should spend their precious time reading.

So I often find myself reading a snippet aloud to my husband to double check that it's insightful instead of insulting. I can point out both the good and the bad in a book without stomping on anyone's hard work. It's easy to write a zinger that is a bit funny and a bit cruel, but it's harder to point out places where the narrative could have been smoother or the characters written more vividly while also writing about the strengths of a particular book.

How about you? Do you sometimes find it hard to navigate between critical and mean?

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Netgalley Mini-Reviews: Sing! and Sing, Unburied, Sing

Jojo is used to his parents not being around. He is happy most days to live with his little sister Kayla and his grandparents. But when his dad is released from prison, his mother Leonie packs up the kids and takes them across Mississippi to bring him home. Sing, Unburied, Sing is the story of one family's attempts to reach each other, but it's also an examination of the ways history haunts us many generations later.

This book is gracing many best books of the year lists and it won the National Book Award. After so many glowing reviews, perhaps there isn't much for this reviewer to write. But I will add my voice to  the chorus that says that Jesmyn Ward is one of the most excellent writers working today. She can evoke a powerful sense of place and history. She also writes characters so carefully--by the time the book is over, readers feel that they have truly gone through this journey with Jojo, held little Kayla when she's scared, and relived a painful past with Pop. Ward has written another beautiful, evocative, thought-provoking story; I'm so glad we get to experience her writing.

Sing, Unburied, Sing
By Jesmyn Ward
Scribner September 2017
285 pages
Read via Netgalley

Keith and Kristyn Getty are well-known as musicians, songwriters, and worship leaders. They believe that the Bible commands each of us to sing often and in many settings. In Sing! they remind us that singing together deepens our connection with the family or congregation we sing with, as well as our connection to God.

Some of you may know that I am a part of the music team at our church. I sing with our choir, sing solos sometimes, pick music for our praise team, and lead the congregational singing. I was hopeful that this book would help me to bridge the divide between the people who happily sing every week and the ones who look like they would rather do anything else than sing in public. While Sing does offer a lot of basic information about why singing is important, I was hoping for some more specific stories about reaching non-singers instead of reinforcing the joy and power of song for musicians. I did appreciate reading about the impact songs have on us, though--most of us can tell you the song that represents a certain time for us or still sing the lyrics of our favorite song from a decade ago. This book is a good starting place for people who work in churches or want to add more music to their families and congregations.

Sing: How Worship Transforms Your Life, Family, and Church
By Keith Getty and Kristyn Getty
B Books September 2017
176 pages
Read via Netgalley

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Review: Home Fire

Isma Pasha has always cared for her younger siblings Aneeka and Parvaiz. Their father was never around and their mother died when the twins were still young. Now she finally has the chance to leave England and live her own life. She accepts an invitation to work and study at an American university. But she can't stop worrying about her sister and brother. Parvaiz has disappeared, determined to find the truth about his father's life as a jihadist and his death. Aneeka is dating a man who might break her heart or save her whole family.

Home Fire is a story told from alternating perspectives. We start with Isma as she embarks on a new adventure in the US and encounters all the difficulties that Muslim women experience. We meet Eamonn, with his easy charm and family influence, and spend time with the twins Aneeka and Parvaiz as they discover just how strong their bond is and how far they would go for the other.

The discerning reader will quickly realize that this is an updated version of the story of Antigone. The author sticks closely to the story in many senses, which makes sense when you consider the timeless themes of love, loyalty, and sacrifice. But bringing it into the 21st century and focusing it on a Muslim family makes the tale incredibly resonant. The novel opens with Isma's airport interrogation as she travels to her new home and this thread takes us all the way through the book--what is it like to live each day when you are seen as "other," when you are the person who will be affected by new laws?

Kamila Shamsie is a wonderful writer and I am happy to have read one of her books. Home Fire is catapulting her into some serious literary attention, which is entirely earned. It is a testament to Shamsie's writing that even a reader who knows what happens in the ancient Greek story will find themselves anxiously flipping pages because they truly care about these characters and want to know if they can somehow avoid a tragic ending.

Home Fire
By Kamila Shamsie
Riverhead Books August 2017
276 pages
From the library

Monday, December 11, 2017

It's Monday and I have a 10-year-old!

Hi everybody! How are your holiday preparations going? Are you checking things off your list? Are your evenings spent in a sea of wrapping paper?

This week, we put Christmas prep on hold for a bit because my favorite 4th grader had a birthday! As I mentioned last week, we started with a day at the aquarium. Then I took D and two of his friends to see the movie Wonder and get some ice cream. This weekend, we had the family here for a birthday party complete with a taco bar and Pokemon decorations.

Now I have to get back into that Christmas to-do-list. I'm making progress but I still have presents to buy and wrap, music to rehearse for church, and cookies to bake!

So I never really got into World's Fair, so I put it aside. Actually, I put it in the pile to donate to my local library; I'm trying to send books out instead of putting them back on my shelf in hopes of them working better another time. Instead I read Sing, Unburied, Sing and now I'm reading Hiding in the Bathroom: An Introvert's Roadmap to Getting Out There. 

        Sing, Unburied, Sing       Hiding in the Bathroom: An Introvert's Roadmap to Getting Out There (When You'd Rather Stay Home)

What are you reading this week?

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Review: The Girl in the Tower

The people in Vasya's village believe she is a witch. As her neighbors become increasingly antagonistic, she is told to join a convent or get married. But Vasya chooses instead to leave everything she has known behind. Disguising herself as a boy, she rides off into the Russian countryside. She soon finds a battle to fight when she learns that bandits are terrorizing small towns. Her bravery earns her the admiration of the Grand Prince. She must continue her facade to keep the prince's trust, but her choices could put her brother, her sister, and the entire city of Moscow in peril.

I absolutely adored The Bear and the Nightingale, the first book in this trilogy. Sequels can be tricky, but The Girl in the Tower lives up to its predecessor. This story gives our beloved protagonist room to grow while also giving us  insight into her brother Sasha and sister Olga. If the first book was primarily about Vasya, this one is about the whole family. It also moves the story from the quiet dangers of the forest to the perils of the city and court, where the person sitting next to you could be your friend or scheming to take your place.

Katherine Arden does a wonderful job of holding things in tension: Vasya glories in the opportunity and danger of the woods while appreciating the safety of a city, she can't resist spending time with the frost demon Morozko but won't give up her own agency, and she is a woman who makes unconventional choices, but those decisions have very realistic repercussions for a woman of the past. It's darker and the consequences are bigger, but the enchanting writing will still draw you in and refuse to let go.

The Winternight books are a beautiful blend of historical fiction and fantasy. If you haven't read them yet, you must pick them up and enjoy all of the magic that a good story with wonderful characters can provide.

The Girl in the Tower
The Winternight Trilogy #2
By Katherine Arden
Del Ray December 2017
352 pages
Read via Netgalley

Monday, December 4, 2017

I'm back to It's Monday!

I haven't done one of these posts in almost two months. But today, here I am!

Somehow, husband and I have kept a certain boy alive and well for the past decade. My kiddo turned ten today, so we played hooky. We started the day with chocolate chip pancakes, went to the aquarium, had lunch with his godmother who was here from the West Coast, and finished the day off with his favorite dinner and a movie.

Image may contain: 2 people
He used to be so little...

I'm trying to get through my crazy long to-do list when it comes to the holidays. It gets extra long when you child has a birthday just a few weeks before Christmas, so wish me well!

On the book front, I recently finished Forest Dark and Home Fire. Now I'm reading World's Fair and planning to pick up Sing, Unburied, Sing later in the week.

                     Home Fire     World's Fair

What are you reading? How are your holiday preparations going?

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Review: A Uterus Is a Feature, Not a Bug

When Sarah Lacy achieved some success in tech journalism, she decided she could take the leap of having a child. She knew the discrimination and setbacks that working mothers could face, but realized that this might be the best moment. So she had a son, and then she had a daughter, and then she built a new company from the ground up. Lacy's book is a rallying cry for women to realize that having children does not make you a less valuable employee and being someone with passion for your career does not make you a bad parent.

The Uterus is a Feature, Not a Bug is several things combined between two covers. It's one woman's story of rising through a mainly male profession; it's a deep dive into the statistics that prove that women and parents in the workforce are a strength, not a weakness; and it's an exploration of what we can do to change workplace culture.

Lacy covers a lot here, but one of the most interesting things is the idea of benevolent sexism. She writes about superiors who would never call themselves sexist, but might have neglected to place you in the running for a promotion because you have a small child or you're too "nice" for management. Lacy also destroys the idea of "distracted mothers." The whole concept is a bit ridiculous--are we actually proposing that non-parents have never been distracted by things going on in their personal lives? And "mommy brain?" Parents can be some of the most focused, productive workers; they know there is no time for chatting at the water cooler or perusing the internet because they want to make it home for that bedtime story.

Some reviewers have pointed out that Lacy can be divisive where she means to be unifying: if you open your book by pointing out that non-mothers can never understand what it's like to birth and raise a child, you are dividing (and perhaps offending) some of your readers right from the start. But I think she is right to point out that, whether or not you intend to have children, women are often considered a liability because they might have children. Men's possible parenthood, however, is seen as a non-issue.

This is not a perfect book, but I do think it's a great starting point for everyone--working moms and dads, their colleagues without children, and the bosses who are determining who gets a seat at the table with them. There is a clear need for change in our places of work. Some of us will become parents and some won't. But we need to leave the possibility for you to attend your child's play or take your parent to a doctor's appointment or just take a mental health day sometimes. If we could base our promotion and pay decisions on the merits of someone's work instead of sitting at your desk for a certain number of hours, I think we would see a huge shift in people's success and love for their jobs.

The Uterus is a Feature, Not a Bug
The Working Woman's Guide to Overthrowing the Patriarchy
By Sarah Lacy
Harper Business November 2017
320 pages
Received from the publisher for TLC Book Tours

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Nonfiction November Mini-Reviews: American Fire and That Crumpled Paper Was Due Yesterday

On November 12, 2012, firefighters were called to a blaze in an abandoned house in Accomack County, Virginia. Little did they know that it would be the first of 86 fires over the next five months. Journalist Monica Hesse traveled to Virginia and met the firefighters who spent night after night fighting fires, the police officers who tried to find the perpetrators, and the people arrested for the crime. American Fire is her examination of what happened and why it happened in this particular place with these particular people.

Monica Hesse really embedded herself into the lives of the people of these Virginian towns and her careful research helps readers to understand how this could happen in an area where most people dangle perilously over the poverty line and abandoned structures are abundant. While she does interview both people arrested for the fires, there is a feeling that law enforcement, the lawyers, and Ms. Hesse herself never quite got the full story. This is probably not unusual and doesn't take away from a fascinating story, as long as you realize that you won't get every answer you seek. Otherwise, this is a well-researched and fascinating look into five months of confusion and terror, the people who set the fires, and the people who brought them to justice.

American Fire
Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land
By Monica Hesse
Liveright July 2017
255 pages
From the library

Many of us who are parents have a moment when we can't believe our kid forget his math homework again or wonder why our kid's intelligence doesn't seem to be matching his English grade. Ana Homayoun works as an educational consultant and spends her days helping students find methods to improve their grades and become great students. In That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week, she breaks down the organizational tools that will help your child succeed in school.

I picked this book up because my favorite 9 year old was having some trouble with getting his homework from school to home and I wanted to help him organize his academic life. This book is aimed at kids in middle and high school, but parents of younger children can still find some pertinent ideas. It's a fine place to start, but I found myself wishing there were some more concrete tools. It seems like common knowledge that a child might not reach his full potential if he spends hours in his room "doing homework" (aka on his phone) or that a child's GPA can suffer if there has been a huge life change like a divorce or death in the family. That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week is a good book to skim for some introductory ideas, but I'm still on the lookout for techniques I can use with my son.

Note: Yes, I'm sure you could use these techniques for girls too. My daughter is only four, so we are not quite there yet. Parents of boys and girls, do you find that disorganization is more frequent in boys or is it a family trait?

That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week
Helping Disorganized and Distracted Boys Succeed in School and Life
By Ana Homayoun
TarcherPerigee January 2010
304 pages
From the library

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Comic Mini-Reviews

During the most recent 24 Hour Readathon, I interspersed my reading with some comics. I had heard great things about each one, so I picked them up from my library and met some new comic authors and illustrators.

The first one I read was Petty Theft, which is about a man in the midst of a crisis. Pascal has just been dumped by his girlfriend, he can't seem to get inspired to start a new book and, to top it all off, he injured his back and can't get his feelings out through running. While wandering the aisles at a bookstore, he sees a woman steal his book from the shelf. He is instantly intrigued and convinces himself if he can only meet and befriend that woman, everything will be ok.

Pascal Girard's drawing style is spare in black and white. He doesn't shy away from showing the indignities of being middle aged and overlooked or crashing with friends when your life is a mess. Pascal and the object of his affection make many questionable choices and can be tough characters to root for, but it's a good pick for someone who needs to laugh when everything is going wrong.

Next, I read Aya by Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie. This book is about the titular Aya, a teenager living on the Ivory Coast of Africa during the 1970s. The author writes in the introduction that she wanted to portray regular life, with its fleeting romances and family squabbles, instead of the war and famine that seem to represent Africa in popular culture. Aya takes readers with her as she goes out with friends, meets boys, and navigates the transition between teen and adult.

Reading Aya was interesting because it is a story like any other teen story; only the illustrations with the sandy roads and the colloquialisms throughout remind us that we are in Africa instead of the US or Europe. The authors truly try to bring you into the time and place of their story and the last few pages include recipes and fashion tips from the characters. If you enjoy Aya, there are five more books about her life and community.

Paper Girls was my favorite of the three. I've read comparisons to Lumberjanes, a favorite in our house, and I can see the resemblance. In this comic, it's the later 1980s and Erin is out delivering papers in the early hours after Halloween. She expects things to be a bit strange, but she is unprepared to find a spaceship and zombie ninjas. Erin teams up with the other paper girls to keep each other safe and figure out what is going on in their town.

I was pretty little in the late 80s, but the fashion and colors are so fun to see on the page. It's definitely aimed at teens and adults, though, because this is one dark and violent tale. The story is wildly inventive, as you might expect from Brian K. Vaughan, and he leaves the first issue on a fabulous cliffhanger. There are three more volumes if you get swept up in the story of Erin and her fellow paper girls.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Netgalley mini-reviews: The Lauras and Warp

In the middle of the night, Alex's mother decides it is time for a road trip. The two of them head across the country to find people from Ma's past. As they travel, Ma tells Alex about her life and they stop for a while to see someone or earn enough money to keep going. Their journey will bring the two closer together and push them apart, as they decide how they want to live the rest of their lives.

The Lauras is a very unique story. Taylor's debut novel The Shore did some creative things with storytelling as well. But The Lauras can be a difficult book to read; Alex is coming to terms with their sexuality and complicated family and Ma is trying to find peace with a painful past. At certain parts, this book seems to be an ode to human resiliency, but it never becomes trite. I didn't adore this book in the way that I loved her previous one, but Sara Taylor is an inventive and talented writer and I will be interested to see what she does next.

The Lauras
By Sara Taylor
Hogarth Press August 2017
304 pages
Read via Netgalley

Hollis has graduated from college and now lives a listless life. He and his friends wander through their days at meaningless jobs and wonder what happened to their dreams. Hollis and his friend decide that the best way to spend their weekend is to break into an abandoned mansion, get drunk, and talk about the people they know and the people they wish they could be.

This book was republished after the success of Grossman's Magicians Trilogy. Hollis is very clearly an early iteration of Quentin Coldwater. It's a really good thing that Quentin became a magician because without magic, the moody twenty-something protagonist is painful to witness. There's an inevitable comparison here to Holden Caulfield. If you are a fan of that character, this might be a good read for you. The rest of us should probably stick to Grossman's more magical books.

By Lev Grossman
St. Martin's Griffin September 2016
192 pages
Read via Netgalley

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Nonfiction November: Become An Expert

It's Nonfiction November!

This month, many readers are putting away their novels in favor of learning something new. I try to read a nonfiction title or two each month, but it's nice to focus on them during the month of November. This week, we are talking about becoming experts on a certain topic.

I just finished and loved Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. In this book, she recounts the year when her family attempted to eat only things that were grown locally or by the family themselves. I am slowly working my way to better food for our family, so I am excited to read other books about gardening, healthy eating, and maybe even getting some chickens.

I have a few books on my tbr list already, but I want your suggestions too. What book helped you as a beginning gardener? What changed the way you think about eating locally? What in the world do you cook in winter when all the produce is shipped from halfway around the world? Which cookbooks do you turn to when trying to eat an entire crate of strawberries or broccoli?

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Review: A Tangled Mercy

In 1822, Tom Russell is a blacksmith with an impossible choice to make. He has been asked to make weapons for a revolt orchestrated by his fellow slaves in Charleston. If he helps them, the consequences could be deadly. But toeing the line doesn't promise safety for him or the woman he loves, either. In the present day, Kate Drayton has messed up spectacularly. She walks out on the lecture she should be teaching and ends up in Charleston, the hometown of her mother. Her mother's recent death has left Kate with a lot of questions about their family and why her mother was researching a failed slave revolt in 1822.

Joy Jordan-Lake walked a precarious road while writing this book. She is a white woman who could easily draw on her own experience as a harried PhD candidate, but had to use research and empathetic imagination to give voice to people who might have lived through the very real revolt of 1822. She was almost finished with the book when a horrific shooting happened at Emmanuel AME Church, an important location to her story. She made the careful choice to incorporate that into her story; as much as we would like to think that everything is different 200 years later, it is clear that prejudice and hatred still live in our nation.

There were certain moments where I wished this book had been edited with a heavier hand, when plot points were dropped or details didn't make sense, but I was still pulled into the stories of Kate and Tom. It's clear that Jordan-Lake is enamored with Charleston itself, as well as its history. The city almost becomes its own character, as we wander down its streets today and 200 years ago. The characters are so compelling and the history is so beautifully blended with story that you may find yourself reading just a few more pages (or chapters) than you meant to read.

It's difficult to examine the horrors of the past without becoming overwhelmed or brushing past them with the claim that things are better now. Joy Jordan-Lake has written through a lens of hope and possibility without ignoring the tragedies that occurred. This is a wonderful book for any reader who loves historical fiction.

A Tangled Mercy
By Joy Jordan-Lake
Lake Union Publishing November 2017
462 pages
Read for She Read Book Club 

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Review: Shalom Sistas

Osheta Moore and her husband were deeply involved in urban ministry in their New Orleans community. She taught ballet at the community center and invited teens into their home, while her husband taught literacy skills and trained people to start new jobs. When Hurricane Katrina hit, their home and the community center where they worked were both destroyed. The family decided to move to Boston, but Osheta found herself without a purpose. She believed that she was called to help people and to practice shalom, or peace-making, in her community, but didn't know how to do it with three small children in tow and no title or funding. As Lent approached, she decided to take those 40 days to study what the Scriptures say about bringing peace to our worlds and then put those things into practice.

In Shalom Sistas, Osheta tells readers that making peace is for everyone. It's for the people who work full-time jobs, the moms and dads who are home all day with little ones, and those of us who feel a bit too snarky to be considered a saint. In fact, Osheta becomes convinced that peacemaking is an active and audacious process, and it needs people who are ready to speak with power and a bit of sass. She writes a manifesto to remember what people seeking peace should be doing every day, which includes things like believing we are enough, seeing the beauty around us, choosing subversive joy, and serving before speaking.

Some of the practices Osheta writes about in Shalom Sistas are ones we have heard before, like remembering to rest so we can do good, hard work. But in other chapters, she deeply challenges her readers. When she read about the Steubenville rape case, she was heartbroken as a fellow victim of sexual assault. But she also sees that, if we are truly committed to peacemaking, there has to be a road to redemption for the perpetrators too. When her daughter's school throws a daddy/daughter dance, the family decides to take the more difficult road and throw a free party instead of attending the event that not everyone could afford. Osheta writes in an extremely conversational and encouraging way. If you are looking for a book that will give you ideas to make peace in yourself, your home, and your community, Shalom Sistas is a great place to start.

Shalom Sistas
Living Wholeheartedly in a Broken World
By Osheta Moore
Herald Press October 2017
240 pages
Read via Netgalley

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Review: Something Beautiful Happened

Yvette Manessis Corporon knew that her family made a brave choice during WWII when her grandparents and their neighbors hid a Jewish family. She has heard the stories of their time together on the island of Erikousa and knows that Savvas and his family survived the war. But no one seems to know where the family went after the war ended. Yvette sets out to discover what happened to them, in the hopes that her family and their family can be reunited. She is overjoyed when she finally finds them, but her joy quickly turns to grief when her relatives are murdered by a neo-Nazi. Yvette and her relatives struggle to make sense of the knowledge that the bravery and joy of the past do not keep them safe from the evil of the present.

Something Beautiful Happened is one of those books that is both universal and specific. Few of us can claim that our grandparents saved someone's life during World War II, but all of us will learn that there is evil in the world that can hurt those we love. What do we do with that grief and anger?

There are moments when the writing in this book veers a bit to the cliche but ultimately, we have two choices when tragedy strikes: either we fall apart or we find those small, beautiful moments that carry us through. Yvette travels around the world and encounters many people, but she finds that they are bound together by the power of story and the unexpected discovery of hope. As the generations who survived the Holocaust are getting older, we must seize our last opportunities to hear about their lives. Their stories of bravery and kindness in one of humanity's darkest moments can give us the strength to hope that good does come after evil.

Something Beautiful Happened
A Story of Courage and Survival in the Face of Evil
By Yvette Manessis Corporon
Howard Books September 2017
320 pages
Read via Netgalley

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

RIP Mini-Reviews: Round 2

Happy Halloween, friends! May you have more tricks than treats and may there still be candy left at your house after all the kids have come by. This year, I went trick-or-treating with the 11th Doctor from Doctor Who and one butterfly fairy princess.

Today is the last day of Readers in Peril, where readers indulge in the spookiest horror stories and mysteries. I confess to being a bit of a wimp when it comes to being scared, so I am always happy to read a good mystery with surprising twists and turns that still allows me to sleep at night!
                                                         Sept. 1 to Oct. 31

Kendra Donovan is very good at what she does. But when an FBI raid goes terribly wrong, she discovers a mole has been working alongside them the whole time. After she recovers from her own gunshot wound, she vows to avenge her murdered colleagues and finds the man responsible. Before she can kill him, she finds herself whisked back to 1815. At first, Kendra is determined to keep her head low until she can find a way back to her own time. But when a young woman is found murdered, she can't keep quiet. Kendra utilizes every tool at her disposal to find a 19th century killer before he murders again.

When you read books with a time travel plot, you have to engage in a certain suspension of belief. In this case, Julie McElwain hinges the entire plot on the murder of a team you never really get to know. The reader has to trust that Kendra was close enough to these people to feel compelled to murder someone on their behalf. As a 21st century FBI agent, Kendra acts very differently than the women she encounters once she goes back to the 19th century. Aside from a passing thought where Kendra realizes that unusual women of that time are often sent to an asylum, she never seems in any real danger of being sent away in spite of her knowledge of future events and techniques and the shocking way she speaks to the men around her. That being said, if you can get past the first few chapters and suspend your belief a bit, this is a really fun ride. There are several possible suspects and McElwain really keeps the pace moving as you race toward the end to see who is responsible. A Murder in Time is the first in a trilogy and I will certainly be picking up the second book to see what happens next.

A Murder in Time
By Julie McElwain
Pegasus Books April 2016
320 pages
From my shelves

Susan Ryeland is an editor who is all too familiar with Alan Conway and his charming murder mysteries; after all, she has been his editor for years. The Atticus Pund series keep her publishing company afloat, so she puts up with his obnoxious behavior. When Susan gets the newest mystery, she has no reason to expect that this new installment will be any different. But this book seems to be missing the final chapter and when Susan goes to track it down, she discovers that the author is dead under mysterious circumstances. Are the answers to Conway's death in his latest story?

Magpie Murders is a giant book with an entire mystery novel inside a murder mystery. The manuscript that Susan is reading is a careful celebration of the cozy English manor mystery that we all know and love. There are secrets, nosy neighbors, and class battles on every page. Anthony Horowitz has done his homework in paying homage to beloved mystery authors of the past, while also putting his own unique and intriguing twist on a murder mystery.

Magpie Murders
By Anthony Horowitz
Harper October 2016
496 pages
From the library

Friday, October 27, 2017

Review: The It Girls

Elinor and Lucy Sutherland were the original "it girls." They challenged what was acceptable for women in their day and rose to prominence in their fields. Lucy ignored the rules that said women of a certain class could not work and became one of the most beloved fashion designers of her time in several countries. Her sister dared to dream of being a famous author and transported her readers with tales of women who traveled the world and pursued their men instead of waiting demurely to be pursued. The two women fought for and with each other, but their lives spanned some of the most fascinating times and places of the 20th century.

Karen Harper has taken on a gargantuan task as she takes readers through fifty years of two women's lives. This means that there is a lot of ground to cover, but unfortunately it leaves readers with only a few pages to spend with secondary characters. It occasionally feels like name-dropping when Elinor chats with Charlie Chaplin or Lucy makes a gown for a lady heading to an event at the palace. But it also makes it difficult to really know the people in Elinor and Lucy's lives--their mother, their lovers, and their children. Harper has divided the book up into sections, with each one covering several years and switching perspective between the sisters. This means that when the two sisters do interact, they often spend pages filling in their sister and the reader on things that the other probably would have already known.

The It Girls is a good choice for someone who wants an overview of the huge changes that happened in the 20th century. It also reminds us of the restrictions and expectations that were placed on the women who came before us, as Elinor and Lucy fight to make their own decisions about their careers, lives, and families.

The It Girls
By Karen Harper
William Morrow Paperbacks October 2017
384 pages
From the publisher for TLC Book Tours

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Review: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

Monique Grant is a small-time reporter at a magazine, so she is shocked when infamous actress Evelyn Hugo says she will give an interview only to her. Monique goes to the interview and is informed that Evelyn will tell her everything about her life, but she can't ask why Evelyn has chosen her. Evelyn starts at the beginning of her life and reveals her rough childhood, her calculated ascension to stardom, and her marriages to seven different husbands. As she talks through her life, Monique will come face-to-face with the devastating truth that her life and Evelyn's are forever intertwined.

Taylor Jenkins Reid does a wonderful job of showing the reality behind the scenes of Hollywood and just how steep the cost of fame can be. This book clocks in at 400 pages, but it moves fast. Evelyn's story is a fascinating one, although it is probably familiar to many actresses of the era. She recounts being a young woman desperate to break away from her poor neighborhood and abusive father. But Hollywood of the 1950s demands certain things from its starlets--an appearance of purity and goodness from the slender, blonde, white women who light up the screen. Evelyn dyes her hair, disavows her Cuban heritage, and begins a string of relationships carefully calculated to turn her into American's sweetheart.

Evelyn's story by itself would be compelling, but it becomes a book that you can't put down because you desperately want to know what happened to the people in Evelyn's life and to find out why she chose Monique to reveal her life story. I understand why The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is one of the most popular books of 2017; Taylor Jenkins Reid has so thoroughly transported you into the glamour and pain of Evelyn's life that you won't want to leave until you turn the last page.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
By Taylor Jenkins Reid
Atria Books June 2017
400 pages
From the library

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

RIP Mini-reviews, Round 1

Sixteen-year-old Jacob's boring life is completely turned upside down when his grandfather is mysteriously killed. He swears he saw a horrible monster attack his grandfather, but no one believes him. Jacob decides it is time to take his grandfather's crazy stories seriously and seeks out Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. He is determined to uncover what happened to his grandfather and what is going on with all of these students who are unlike any people he has ever met before.

I think I'm one of the last people to read this book. Since coming out six years ago, it's been a very popular choice for teen and adults looking for a bit of a creepy tale. The cover draws you right in, and Ransom Riggs used strange photographs throughout to add to the story. I am sad to say I found myself in the minority of readers who didn't love it. (Minor Spoilers Ahead!) The concept is so interesting: a group of people stuck in a time bubble where they repeat the same day over and over and those people happen to have special, magical abilities. But the idea never went anywhere, the writing didn't transport me into the story, and the characters fell flat. This story would be a good choice for someone looking for a book that is just creepy enough to count for a Halloween read without keeping you up all night, though.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
By Ransom Riggs
Quirk June 2011
352 pages
From my shelves

One night, Miranda and Eliot's mother is away on a trip. Eliot turns to his sister and tells her that they cannot sleep; if they sleep, their mother will die. Surely enough, when they wake up the next morning, their mother has been killed in a faraway act of violence. The children and their father attempt to live a normal life going to school and operating the family bed and breakfast. But there is a dark current running through their home--Miranda wastes away as she refuses the food her father prepares in favor of chalk and plastic. And the house itself is determined to protect Miranda, even at the cost of the people around her.

If you have read anything by Helen Oyeymi, you know that she excels when writing about the strange and supernatural. It's not unusual for a reader to not be 100% sure what is going on and that is true for White is for Witching tooThe book rapidly switches narration between the siblings, a friend you don't meet until halfway through, and the house itself. White is for Witching is rarely terrifying but it is always eerie. It's bizarre and unsettling and shows how powerful and fascinating Oyeyemi is as a writer, even in her early stories.

White is for Witching
By Helen Oyeyemi
Nan A. Talese January 2009
230 pages
From the library